4 - Octavia

I was still reeling with new information after the drunk Irish spirit had gone, though in many ways he’d given me more questions than answers. I didn’t really understand what this association of supernatural creatures actually did. What was their purpose? I thought I’d better ask Olrun or Volund for some good warding runes if I made it back to Valhalla a second time. Obviously, the ghostly nature of the building, though effective at hiding my bar from humans, did little to dissuade other non-humans from finding and entering it freely.

In the meantime, I finished cleaning up the mess and flipped the metaphorical sign out front, allowing Eikthyrnr to fully emerge into the world of the living. As I dragged my furniture back up the stairs, I felt exhilarated. Thoughts of Rufus, my first collected soul in centuries, percolated at the back of my mind and added even more questions to my already substantial list. I worried that, despite my confident words to Odin, I was missing something essential about Rufus, some aspect of his personality or life that held a clue to the changes Olrun had seen her in her scrying-bowl. I studied the new, delicate band around my forearm and wondered if Volund’s gift would have helped me find Rufus sooner, if it would lead me to more warriors like him or to different souls altogether.

One of my regulars, an elderly man with a small, shaggy white dog, came in and set himself up at one of the small tables before walking up to the bar and ordering his usual beer. After that, people began trickling in: a few surfers, a couple, and a pair of older women with a chessboard. I watched their game, fascinated, and absentmindedly wiped the bar as a group of young people walked in the door, chatting loudly, and made their way to a corner booth. After that, the place picked up considerably, and I lost myself in the simple pleasure of serving ale, discussing my beer and mead list, and even occasionally clearing tables. It was a familiar routine despite its appearance of chaos, and I felt myself calm as the night progressed.

“Do you ever feel, no, no, seriously, do you ever feel like the world is just an inherently incredible place?” The woman leaning over my bar had long brown hair, light brown skin, and the most beautiful liquid brown eyes I had ever seen. She was slurring her speech slightly, and I found myself drawn to her wide, expressive mouth as she spoke. “I mean, every day I read about atrocities. I read about human trafficking and increasing wealth disparity and systemic racism and the prison industrial complex. It’s a lot, man. You know.”

I nodded, even though I had no idea what she was talking about. After all, I’m a bartender at heart. I don’t need to understand what people are saying to have a conversation on the human condition.  “People can be cruel,” I said, guessing. “Out there in the world, they are harming each other every day. It’s not always on purpose, but it never changes.”

 “Yeah. Don’t I know it. But on a night like this, with the wind blowing right up the street and all my friends around, it just makes me feel like, like…” She waved her hands around aimlessly.

“Like what?”

“Aw, I dunno. Maybe like there’s real good in the world. Like there’s a well of joy we can somehow all just tap into.” She smiled at me broadly and looked right into my eyes, and I found myself warmed by her gentle manner. She was wearing a leather jacket, and she leaned her arms on the bar as she spoke, oblivious to a puddle of beer by her elbow.

“Maybe there is,” I suggested, half-serious. “We create happiness inside ourselves, don’t we? But it needs fuel. The fuel comes from places like this. Loved ones and lighthearted evenings are the wood for its fire.”

The girl burst out laughing. “That’s perfect,” she finally said.  “Cheesy and ridiculous, which is the exact mood that I’m in. What’s your name? I’m Octavia. Can I have another of those honey-birch beers? They’re bitter, but strangely delicious.”

“Of course,” I said, “That’s three dollars. Sigrid is my name.” I busied myself filling her drink and wondered at this woman and the actually palpable sensation of lightness that she seemed to instill. I found myself smiling without noticing, and actually humming a tune from my childhood as I passed her the glass.

“Sigrid, huh? That’s cool, almost as cool as my name. Your wings are awesome! I saw someone wear a black pair just like that to Folsom last year, but yours are such neat colors. They look like they came off a real bird!”

I grinned at her. Signy has the brown-gold wings of an eagle and Olrun and her sisters’ wings are swan-white, but mine are the grey and white of an osprey, full of patterns and streaked with brown. I can be very vain about them. “They’re based on osprey wings,” I told Octavia proudly. When she looked confused, I explained, “That’s a big seabird that used to hunt fish where I grew up. I’ve always liked them. It made sense that when I got wings, they would match my favorite bird.”

“Totally. God, it must have taken you forever to put those together. I can see why you like them so much. If I could make wings like that, I would show them off constantly.” I glowed with pride as she continued, “So you grew up near the sea? Where are you from? You have an amazing accent.”

An hour later I knew that Octavia was studying for her doctorate of ethnic studies at a nearby university called Berkeley, that she had a brother and sister and came from a much colder place in America called Michigan, that she loved hiking, that she wished she had the time and stability to own a dog, that she played the bass in a student band but her real passion was piano, that she came to a studio here in the Sunset once or twice a week to learn jazz with a small music collective, that she loved this bar but was surprised she hadn’t noticed the building before now, that she used to hate her name but had grown attached to it, considered herself a social nerd, loved reading science fiction and fantasy, and believed in ghosts and the chupacabra.

In turn, Octavia knew that I was from Sweden and that I was not very good at discussing myself. If she hadn’t drunk two more pints of mead during our conversation, I’m sure she would have given up in frustration and walked away. Instead, she kept talking, and I found myself relating to her story of caring for her ill mother, nodding in recognition at her description of sexism in the university (“It’s way worse for my sister Maggie, she’s an engineer and there’s almost no women in her department at all! Ethnic studies is actually mostly women, but we don’t get any respect from the other departments.”), and genuinely fascinated at her description of her large, Mexican-Polish family. “The only thing I have on both sides is alcoholism and Catholic guilt,” she said, raising her third glass.

“Christianity is common, then?” I asked before I could stop myself. When I was alive, I had been certain Christianity was a minor cult that would fade into obscurity.

She stared at me. “You’re weird. But yeah, Christianity’s everywhere, thanks to European colonialism and the forced conversion of native peoples. I can tell you all about it some time. I considered writing my thesis on the way religion has been used as a method of self-policing among sub-altern populations, who ended up becoming more religiously conservative both as a survival mechanism and a way to prove to the oppressive regimes that they were civilized and capable of self-government.”

“I do not understand a single thing you just said,” I admitted. “It sounds serious.”

She laughed. “It is, but it’s also an example of me being an obnoxious academic. Sometimes I spend so much time in my own small intellectual world that I forget how much of this terminology is specific to my area and I come off like a jackass. Forgive me? I can explain it all if you want.”

“Maybe let’s just start with the history of this area,” I said. “I have a lot to learn since I just moved here.  You’ll have to go slow though. To be honest, I am not very smart. My skills are more in the physical realm than the intellectual.” I flexed a bicep and winked. 

She laughed again, this time a slow chuckle that brightened her whole face. “Nice,” she said. “I don’t spend nearly enough time with the brawn over brains crowd. Anyway, I don’t need to be giving a lecture right now. Let’s move the conversation back to you. Tell me more about your wings. Do you wear them a lot?”

I nodded. “Of course. They’re a part of me,” I told her. “I couldn’t take them off if I wanted to. But why would I want to? I love being able to fly.”

Octavia laughed. “I respect a girl who can commit,” she said. “You must fly pretty often. Where do you go?”

“My favorite place in this area is just to the west, where the land meets the sea. I think it’s called Land’s End—just beyond there. When there is a storm, I fly low, just over the waves so that the air and water mix and I feel like I’m part of both.” I looked her in the eyes carefully, feeling inexplicably nervous. “Do you know what I mean? Right there on the edges of things, so you’re not one thing and not the other.” I felt brighter, somehow, as we talked, as if I could explain some of my feelings in ways that would make sense and would not make me feel ashamed of this strange openness. “There hasn’t been a storm in a while, but there was a true cliff-basher the day after I arrived, and I lost myself in the violence of it, for a while.”

Octavia smiled back at me. “Normally I avoid the weather as a topic of conversation at bars,” she said, her eyes sparkling with humor. “It’s so overdone. But you have a way with words.” She shifted her arms on the bar, leaning toward me, but turned suddenly as a gangly, thin young man approached to perch on the stool beside her. “Hey, Grasshopper!” She slung her arms around his shoulders and turned to me, grinning. “This is my new friend Sigrid! She’s from Sweden and she loves storms, too.”

The young man inclined his head in a surprisingly graceful acknowledgment for his gawky frame. He had a shock of blond hair sticking up from his head. “Peter,” he said curtly, his eyes solemn. “Nice wings. Were you at WonderCon this year? I think I saw a pair just like that.”

I shook my head, wondering if these other winged people Octavia and Peter had seen might be members of the association Rufus had told me about. I’d find out soon enough. I returned my attention to Octavia, who was talking.

“We call him Grasshopper because he’s so skinny and a straight up genius on the violin,” She explained. She pointed at his glass. “Refill?” He nodded, and I topped it up with the same pale ale he’d been drinking earlier.

Octavia’s arm was still around Peter’s shoulders, and she gave them a squeeze before she let go. “You sounded great today,” she told him, “I’ve never seen your fingers move so fast. I still think you need to play ‘The Devil Went Down to Georgia’ for us, because I swear you could beat Lucifer himself.”

He grinned. “Girl, you don’t have to keep buttering me up.” He turned to me and added, “Tavy always showers me with compliments when she thinks I’m having a hard day.”

“Doesn’t mean they aren’t true!” Octavia protested.

I smiled at them as they bickered, marveling at my own pleasure in the conversation. I found I had to take a step back and watch myself acting like a modern human, interacting with mortals in this lighthearted fashion. These bartender conversations felt effortless despite their still unfamiliar context.

Octavia rummaged in the pockets of her leather jacket. “I’m gonna smoke a cigarette. You in, Peter?” He nodded, and she glanced back to me. “Want to join us? How long is your shift?”

I looked around the bar. Midnight had come and gone, and we were now in the early hours of the morning. There were only a few people left at the tables, none with drinks over half-full. I nodded at her. “Go ahead; I’ll meet you out back in a few minutes. If you take that door right there—” I pointed “—you can get a beautiful view from the outdoor stair.”

She wrinkled her eyes at me. “You mean the fire escape? Sure, sounds good.” Sliding clumsily off her bar stool, she sauntered out of the room, followed by Peter.

I watched the door close behind them and then took a deep breath, feeling around me for the invisible hooks tethering the building. Yes, here are the edges, I thought, testing them. I could sense the parts of the building that remembered it should have been intangible, that it was more memory than reality. Still, the tethers held strong. In fact, I seemed to have anchored this building to the living world with a lot more strength than I recalled being capable of in my old days as a Valkyrie. Perhaps my powers had grown in the interim? I filed the thought away to look at later and loosened the hooks slightly, letting the building fade just enough for the remaining customers to feel restless and uncomfortable, as if something unnameable about their environment was unstable, even precarious. Without quite knowing why, they found themselves deciding to finish up, pay for their drinks, and move on.

I let myself out the back door into the alley without bothering to clear the remaining tables. It would wait. Octavia and Peter were out of sight, but a small light flickered distantly near the roof of the building so I assumed they had climbed all the way up the fire escape and settled down on the roof.

Spreading my wings was a relief after a night of keeping them furled. This time, I rose to the roof slowly, savoring the ache in my sore muscles as my wings flapped in search of an updraft. I came eye-level to Octavia just as she was taking a drag on her cigarette, and she immediately started coughing. She had been sitting on the edge of the roof with her legs hanging over the side, and as I alighted beside her she threw herself backward off the ledge of the fire escape, crashed into Peter and scrambled away onto the roof. Her eyes were huge.

Peter rolled over where he had fallen and climbed to his feet in front of his friend, staring at me. “What the hell?” He sounded dazed.

I had messed up. I slapped myself on the forehead and hunched down a little, trying to make myself smaller and less frightening. “Baldr's blistering balls! I am so sorry! I forgot that people don’t interact with legend anymore. Freya’s farts, I’m thoughtless. Seriously, I am so, so sorry. Even in my old Valkyrie days I usually knew better than to land in front of people outside of a battlefield, and they would have at least recognized me. It’s just, you seemed so unsurprised by my wings and my story about flying. And today I learned about the San Francisco Society of International Supernaturals, so I figured you knew about them, too.” Octavia was still on the ground, and strange choking sounds were coming out of her mouth. What had I done? I hunched further into myself and tried to approach as cautiously and unthreateningly as possible. “Do you need medical attention?” This just caused further choking sounds.

Finally, she sat up, gasping, and I realized she wasn’t in pain or panicking. She was laughing.

“Oh my god.” She managed a few words between snorts of laughter. “Of course. Of course you’re some kind of Viking god Valkyrie thing. Of course your wings are real. What else would they be?” She laughed again and added, “Your face! You thought you’d killed me or something. Jesus! You scared the crap out of me. That is a nice trick, though. Do you have wires or something? Way more convenient than the fire escape. You have got to teach me how to cuss like that, it sounds absolutely ridiculous. Do you always use that much alliteration when you swear?”

“I don’t know. Maybe?” My heart was hammering against my ribcage, and I found myself laughing, too, out of sheer relief and confusion. Why had my reaction been so extreme? Why had I felt so panicked and concerned when nothing was wrong? I noticed, now that I felt calmer, that my left forearm was throbbing above the wrist. I glanced down in time to see the bracelet Volund had given me pulse with heat and light. My heart, which had just calmed down, skipped a beat as I stared at Octavia with new eyes. Sitting on a roof in jeans and her jacket, her legs splayed out in front of her, holding her sides with hysterical giggles, she didn’t look like a warrior at all. But then, what did I know? I’m going to have to pay attention to this woman, I thought. If she dies, I want to be there. If she doesn’t, she might still give me a clue as to what kind of warrior I’m looking for.

I glanced at Peter, who was leaning over the edge of the roof.  Perhaps the bracelet was responding to him. As I stepped toward him, it faded back to its usual brassy color. He turned around, his eyebrows furrowed.

“I’m not seeing any wires here. Impressive.” He looked at me thoughtfully, and I shivered a little. I sat down next to Octavia, and the two of us stared out into the fog as Peter continued his inspection of the fire escape.

She fumbled in her pocket for another cigarette and winked at me. “Grasshopper used to be a programmer, and he’s never encountered a puzzle he couldn’t solve through brains and sheer stubbornness. He’ll probably be a while figuring out your trick. So, tell me about being a Valkyrie. Are you really from Sweden?”

“I was born in Sweden, yes,” I responded, thinking of how best to explain it. “But ever since I died, I’ve been in Valhalla. What I told you before was the truth. I’ve only lived in San Francisco for a couple of months.”

Octavia thought for a moment. “So, you lived before, a long time ago, and then you were dead for a while, and now you’re back. Why are you here? Aren’t Valkyries supposed to swoop over battlefields on flying horses collecting the souls of heroes?”

I laughed delightedly. “How do you know that? That’s marvelous.”

She shrugged. “I’m a PhD student in Ethnic Studies. That means reading a lot of mythology, even hella white Nordic mythology. A lot of my undergrad was in the English department and I took a lot of classes on old-ass European literature. But I’m guessing,” she looked pointedly at my wings, “that a winged horse would be overkill in your case.”

“I’ve never been much of a horse person anyway.” She offered me her cigarette, so I took it and imitated her, pulling air through the little tube. It made me cough. When I got my breath back, I said, “I don’t know why I’m here in San Francisco. I’ve wondered that myself. It would have made more sense to send me to a real battlefield. I know there are wars going on elsewhere in the world.” I looked at her curiously. “Why are you so calm?”

Octavia smirked at me. “Oh, sweetheart, I don’t actually believe you! I mean, don’t get me wrong, I think it’s very impressive, all the work you’ve put in to this persona. But you aren’t the first dedicated cosplayer I’ve met. I’ve had a few drinks, it’s been a long night, and I’m having a good time playing along. For tonight, I might even pretend this is real for an hour or so.”

I nodded. I should have been relieved, but instead my wings and shoulders drooped in disappointment. This woman had been honest with me all evening and I badly wanted to return the favor. But how could I, when she couldn’t believe the truth?

She leaned her head on my shoulder. I held myself still, aware of the fragility, the sweetness of this quiet moment. We watched Peter disappear down the fire escape, searching for an explanation he would never find. As I sat on the rooftop with a gentle, irrepressible human in my arms, for the first time in a long while I felt free from my usual constant desire to move, to change, to make something different. For a fleeting moment, I was content.